Treatment of the Dead

Treatment of the Dead December 6, 2012

A reader writes:

I went to a public lecture on November 4th down in New Haven, CT. The State Archaeologists and a Physical Anthropologist from Yale reported on the findings of 4 early Irish Catholic graves recently uncovered by construction on the Yale University campus. The State Archaeologist (Dr. Nick Bellantoni), by all appearances a nice gentleman and honest fellow assured the full house (standing room only crowd) that (I must paraphrase here because my recorder broke!), “in the judo-christian tradition, the bones are only material and meaningless, because the spirit or soul is what matters”. Then he proceeded to tell us how the Catholic clergy came out and gave directions on how to handle the bones and then blessed the site. This unmarked and forgotten cemetery might hold as many as 500-700 Irish Catholics from the 1830’s-1850’s.

This struck me as totally Puritan Protestant type “bible christian” type thinking. Heck, I carry around a 3rd degree saint medal that is reputed to be touched to an object that was once touched to a relic associated with the Saint! If I could touch my rosary directly to the bones of St. Patrick, I would get in line. So for us Catholics, or at least Irish Catholics do these bones retain meaning? I would argue that any An Gorta Mor (Famine) survivor found in these graves have multiple meanings for the decent community that is both sentimental and spiritual at the same time.

What is your opinion on how the bones of our Irish-Catholic ancestors should be handled? Meaningless material “artifacts” for the realm of scientific scrutiny, or sacred and holy objects like a relic? At the very least, the Irish Catholic community should use these remains to remind us of why and how we came to this place we call the United States.

Your instincts are sound. Here’s the Catechism:

2300 The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit.

2301 Autopsies can be morally permitted for legal inquests or scientific research. The free gift of organs after death is legitimate and can be meritorious.

The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.

The mortal body is the temple of the Holy Spirit while alive and the seed of the Resurrection Body when dead, so Catholics rightly treat it with reverence and not merely as a disposable Tupperware container. This doesn’t mean that such remains cannot be reverently handled to gain scientific knowledge, as the Church says. But it does mean that the body is indeed to be treated with respect.

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  • Deb Hoium

    What about museum exhibits like Body World or Body the exhibition. To me these museum works are horrible. I had no issue with utilizing a cadaver in my studies but these displays seem very disrespectful to the body and the dead.

    • it gets worse once you start to ask where the bodies came from….

    • ivan_the_mad

      I’ve no reference for you on the matter, but I do remember that show coming to a diocese I once lived in. The bishop roundly condemned it and advised the faithful to avoid it.

  • Jamie R

    On the other hand, for most of the Church’s history (and still in places like Germany), grave sites were temporary. You were buried, decomposed, and unless your estate renewed the lease or a cultus developed around you, they just dug the grave site back up and put someone back after you. Digging up the bones once they’ve decomposed offends modern American, and not long-standing Catholic, sensibilities.

    • Dan Berger

      I believe there’s a Cistercian abbey in France that does this: the cemetery is full, so when a monk dies, they dig up the oldest grave, collect the bones, and put them in a box in the coffin under the newly-dead monk’s head. I find this beautiful; my Protestant relatives find it grotesque.

      • Dan Berger

        BTW, in the category “Protestant relatives” I include most of my Catholic relatives, who have fairly typical Americo-Protestant sensibilities.

        • The cost and availability of land profoundly alters the way life (and death) is conducted. Neither americans or europeans understand each other because of major differences in population density. It is rather narrow minded in either direction not to take into account these very ordinary differences.

          • Jamie R

            1.) In the middle ages, when this was common in all of Catholic Europe, there was plenty of extra land.

            2.) This is no longer the practice in many very dense countries, including England, but is still the practice in very dense Germany.

            3.) My point, and I believe also Dan’s, is that there’s nothing weird or un-Catholic about moving bones once the flesh has rotted off. Population density doesn’t change that.

  • I think it is obviously important to treat the remains they find with the utmost respect. It seems like they did that, and that makes me content.